Champagne problems: Why being irate about spending a few quid on an important lunch is not just ridiculous, but dangerous

Perhaps it was because the festivities were over and the prospect of a long Dry January was looming that prompted so many people to get so upset. Perhaps it was just a slow news day. But the leak of emails from civil servants questioning the cost and location of a lunch given by the Foreign Secretary for the US Trade Representative prompted a short-lived but intense storm on social media and in the newspapers this week. Which leaves me asking: why?

The facts are that the Foreign Secretary wanted to provide a working lunch as part of talks with the USTR, Katherine Tai. Ten people were to attend. Given the nature of the conversation a private dining room was required. Presumably the Minister and her advisors wanted to impress. So they proposed (or “insisted upon”) going to the private members’ club, 5 Hertford Street, and ended up paying £130 a head including drinks.

Cue snide headlines implying that Liz Truss somehow personally benefitted (this was an official event and she didn’t). Others spotted that the club is owned by Robin Birley who donated to Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign (although it is doubtful that he is so short of cash that he was desperate for the profit margin on a £1300 bill). And there was a general feeling that “public money” was being squandered on an “obviously expensive” meal, and that probably they should have gone somewhere cheaper.

Where even to start with this? At a time when there are so many things to criticise the Government for, and so many reasons to question Liz Truss’s record, spending a few quid on a really important working meal is ridiculous and infantile. For one thing, how much money spent at what location would be acceptable? The civil servants apparently thought Quo Vadis at £100 a head would be okay. But would that have passed muster with the self-appointed auditors general online? It is impossible to know.

This matters for two reasons. First, it demonstrates how pathetically penny-pinching our attitudes towards public bodies have become. Do we really want to entertain a senior official from our closest ally on the cheap? What does that say about us and our global standing? Wouldn’t we rather impress, showcase the best that the UK has to offer (Hertford Street isn’t that, but it is the principle that counts!) and demonstrate that we matter?

This all reminds me of working in Parliament and someone suggesting that Select Committee fact-finding visits should be conducted via low cost airlines. Fine, obviously public money shouldn’t be spent frivolously, but does it really present the best image of the UK to the world for senior Parliamentarians to stumble off planes filled with boozy stag parties to go into meetings in which they are representing our country? Whilst we wouldn’t want to go as far as the US, which sends a huge entourage with every visiting member of Congress, surely we can have a bit of pride?

I appreciate that focusing on this aspect of the story is idiosyncratic. Maybe what we spend on diplomacy, hard and soft, is not important. But it is indicative of an attitude in which almost any spending on anything (perhaps other than the NHS) is viewed by many, including in the media, as inherently wasteful. We are particularly cheeseparing when it comes to pay or to working conditions. This damages our public services in countless ways, not least the difficulties faced in attracting and retaining good quality staff. Being cheap is not always efficient. We need to think again.

The second, and most important reason this matters is that this story reflects a dangerous lack of understanding of where our taxes actually go. Spending this amount on lunch might on one level sound like a lot, but by comparison to what Government spends – and wastes – on so many other things it is not even remotely relevant. For example, it takes the NHS around a third of a second to spend what Ms Truss did on lunch. Yet coverage of the mechanics of health policy (as opposed to individual cases and coronavirus) is incredibly slight when compared to the front pages devoted to this restaurant bill.

The endless stories about sleazy politicians – and yes, profligate lunch choices – obscure what is really important. Polling published just before Christmas showed that the public believes that fully 8 percent of public spending goes on MPs’ pay, an over-estimate of staggering proportions. But they also think that only 11 percent goes on pensions and benefits (the real figure is 26 percent). This feeds upon itself: the public is interested in political sleaze so there are more and more stories about it, so we think it is far more important than it really is – and inevitably we end up collectively focused on the wrong things.

I am not at all sure how we break out of this cycle. But the mainstream media definitely has a role to play. It could do a better job of filtering out whether a ‘political sleaze’ story really matters (or even really involves much sleaze) and of instead looking in detail at the many ways Ministers spend billions of pounds of our money. Maybe that would make the media unreadable and uninteresting. But it is what we as taxpayers need, and so it surely has to be worth a try. Something has to change.

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